By Mark Carlisle
Just over a year ago, Valley vegans would have given little thought to downtown Glendale when looking for a place to eat. Now, it’s at or near the top of their list.
“There’s nothing happening out here. There was no vegan options, no vegan restaurants, no vegan anything. So, we really wanted to go where we were needed most,” said Sandre McKee, owner of Arizona’s first all-vegan grocery store Veggie Rebellion, which celebrates its one-year anniversary in downtown Glendale this weekend.
In the year since Veggie Rebellion opened, two other all-vegan businesses have joined downtown Glendale, all within two block of each other. Mi Vegana Madre, a vegan Mexican restaurant, opened in July and Casa Terra, Arizona’s first fine dining vegan restaurant, opens Monday.
“That kind of kickstarted the whole movement down here,” said Zach Willikens, front of house manager at downtown Glendale’s Cuff restaurant.
In addition to the three all-vegan eateries, several restaurants have added or expanded vegan options since Veggie Rebellion opened. Mr. Willikens, a vegetarian and on-and-off vegan, said Cuff has always had a few options but didn’t expand the menu until around the time Veggie Rebellion opened.
“It was always a priority of ours to expand our vegan options, but once we had the clientele in front of us, it pushed us to go a lot faster,” he said.
In a year, downtown Glendale has gone from irrelevant on the vegan scene to a destination.
“If I was the only vegan place here, I just happen to be a vegan place in downtown Glendale,” said Chef Jason Wyrick, owner of Casa Terra. “But now when I mention it, people are like, ‘Oh, downtown Glendale is becoming this vegan hotspot.’”
Both Mr. Wyrick and Ms. McKee said what drew them to Glendale is the lack of vegan options in the West Valley. Mr. Wyrick said Valley’s vegan population is “horribly underserved.”
Katy Engels, downtown manager for the Glendale Chamber of Commerce, said the same thing.
“It’s not here on the West Valley. The vegans just don’t have the options. And so now, they’re coming from all over,” she said.
Mr. Willikens has witnessed that expanded customer based coming into Cuff since it added more vegan options, including an Impossible Burger, jackfruit sandwiches and tacos and Street corn.
“We have a whole new demographic that we didn’t use to have coming into the restaurant,” he said. “…I see people coming from all over the Valley now—Scottsdale, Tempe, Phoenix. When they used to all go down to Tempe, Phoenix, now some of those people are coming our way.”
Not everything has come easily during Glendale’s vegan boom. Ms. McKee said the summer was “terrible” for Veggie Rebellion and the Christmas season fell below expectations too. With tons of media attention, Veggie Rebellion had a huge opening weekend last February, making $6,000 in the first day, Ms. McKee said.
She new the initial excitement would wear off though. Now, Veggie Rebellion has transitioned from trying to be a one-stop shop to focusing on hard-to-find and specialty items. Veggie Rebellion now has a core group of around 25 regulars and many other customers who stop in after getting a vegan meal in downtown.
“We sort of inadvertently ended up on the downtown Glendale vegan food tour,” Ms. McKee said.
Veggie Rebellion sparked that tour, said Mr. Willikens and Mr. Wyrick.
In addition to Cuff, downtown restaurants that have added vegan option recently include Haus Murphy’s, Moe’s Old Fashioned Burgers, A Shot of Java, Nomadic Ice Cream Rolls and Tangled Root Botanicals, which sells vegan tea and vegan body care products.
“I don’t think that would have happened if there wasn’t a burgeoning vegan culture in downtown Glendale,” Mr. Wyrick said of restaurants adding or expanding vegan options.
Mr. Wyrick started a vegan catering company in 2004 and a vegan delivery service in 2006. He co-wrote the New York Times best-selling book “21 Day Weightloss Kickstart” and founded the world’s first Vegan food magazine, The Vegan Culinary Experience, and has traveled around the world teaching cooking classes. Last year he moved his delivery service, The Vegan Taste, from a temporary kitchen in Surprise to permanent kitchen in downtown Glendale. It will continue its delivery after Casa Terra opens.
Mr. Wyrick said he felt like opening a restaurant was the next step needed in his career.
“I was kind of tired of the Valley not having a vegan fine dining spot. People have been asking me to do that for years,” he said.
Glendale was ranked by WalletHub as the 43rd most vegetarian- and vegan-friendly city in the U.S. It’s not the highest rank in Arizona though. Scottsdale is ranked eighth and Phoenix is 14th.
The new vegan niche has begun to change the culture of downtown.
“It’s just been all good stuff to see the atmosphere of the whole town changing,” said Mr. Willikens. “Any sort of change is kind of good for downtown Glendale right now, because it’s been kind of stuck in its ways a long time. So, we’re embracing change and a lot of the other businesses around here are embracing change as well because of this new revolution.”
City Manager Kevin Phelps is glad to see the vegan additions.
“I think that’s cool. I always say, I think you have to learn to differentiate yourself,” Mr. Phelps said.
Downtown needs more alignment in its offerings, Mr. Phelps said.
“You look at your restaurants and your specialty kinds of stores,” he said. “You look at who’s your demographic you can attract and then you cluster those together. And again, I would say that’s what our problem is.”
Mr. Phelps noted that downtown is a hodgepodge of antique stores, gift stores, a psychic reader, restaurants and other eateries.
Ms. McKee was inspired to open Veggie Rebellion after visiting a vegan grocery store called Food Fight! while on a family trip in Portland, Oregon. She said she did extensive research before opening in Glendale, but every market and store is different and comes with its own challenges.
“You know, it’s hard being a trailblazer,” Ms. Mckee said with a laugh. “But at the same time I’m glad that we can help kind of make Glendale viable to be a vegan hotspot. And I feel really blessed to have the opportunity to be one of those first to open up.”
Mr. Wyrick wants his restaurant to fill the West Valley’s need for vegan options, but its need for quality cuisine in general.
“I think the West Valley is underserved not just in the vegan market but also in having really great restaurants. We’re always an afterthought, and I think that needs to change, and I’m hoping to be part of that change,” he said.